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Samsung Galaxy S7 REVIEW: Little refinements make a big difference

A few years ago it looked like Samsung was going to concede its perch atop the Android throne. Temperamental fans were getting fed up with the company’s love of plastic, and its software skin, known as TouchWiz, was morphing into a nightmare of bright colors and unnecessary fluff. Then the Galaxy S6 happened.

Realizing that its dominance was being threatened, Samsung had a moment of introspection and decided its approach of releasing dozens of phones per year and hiding Android under a sluggish skin no longer worked. What previously made the company stand out quickly became the bane of its existence.

But Samsung overcame adversity and is now better than ever. In fact, it’s better than that. With the Galaxy S7, the company has a device that has no obvious shortcomings and offers one of the most complete mobile packages we’ve ever seen.

Refinement is the name of the game this year, and what a refinement it is.

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A gorgeous design

At first glance, the Galaxy S7 looks nearly identical to the Galaxy S6—same button placement, same oval home button/fingerprint sensor combo, same bottom-facing speakers, volume rocker, power button, etc., etc. Nothing really stands out that signifies a major design overhaul over last year—certainly not on the level of change we saw from the Galaxy S5 to the Galaxy S6. But there are some subtle differences.

For one, the S7 is slightly thicker than last year’s model. Not in an annoying way; last year’s S6 came in at a svelte 6.8 mm, while this year’s model is a burly 7.9 mm. That sounds like a big difference, but it’s not something you’ll notice. The device isn’t heavy or unwieldy and it actually feels better thanks to the slightly thicker body, like you’re holding something substantial.

The thicker body, by the way, didn’t happen by accident. Samsung bulked up in order to accommodate a larger battery, which is something companies typically try to avoid. Hey, kudos to Samsung for making a sensible decision. The S7 sports a 3,000mAh battery, a big jump up from the S6’s 2,550mAh unit (more on battery later).

Meanwhile, the back of the device now features slightly curved edges, similar to what we saw with last year’s Galaxy Note 5; the change makes the device more comfortable to hold. Not that the Galaxy S6 was particularly uncomfortable, but the delicate refinement adds an extra layer of elegance; the choice doesn’t feel like Samsung did it just because. It’s calculated and considerate to the end user’s experience.

Overall, the Galaxy S7 just feels tighter, more comfortable and thoughtful. Simply picking it off the table is now much easier, which doesn’t sound like a huge thing, but it makes a noticeable difference. It’s cohesive and smart and improves upon last year’s S6, which already had a stellar design. Other small nips and tucks, such as the smaller camera hump, flatter home button and more rounded corners, are also welcome changes.

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Even better, the Galaxy S7 re-introduces support for features that Samsung ditched last year; the device is not only IP68 certified—good for accidental spills and splashes—but it now comes with microSD support (up to 200GB). That right there might be worth the upgrade for some, but there’s a caveat you should know about.

In Android Marshmallow, Google introduced a feature known as adoptable storage, which basically allows users to format an SD card as internal storage, making it a part of the system. Once it’s adopted, however, Android urges users not to remove it, as it’s crucial for apps and other services. If you’re OK with permanently keeping an SD card inside your phone, adoptable storage is great. But if you need something that can be swapped out, then adoptable storage isn’t for you.

Samsung has decided not to support adoptable storage, which means your microSD card is treated as an additional block. You can still move media files, app data and anything else over to your SD card, but it’s just treated differently. And if you do decide to put apps onto an SD card, the icons will get grayed out and show a little “SD” flag when the storage is removed. Not a huge deal, but know what you’re working with.

It’s a good thing the S7 supports microSD, too, because the only available storage option (at least here in the U.S.) is 32GB. That’s plenty for most people, but if you store absolutely everything on your device, it can fill up quick, especially if you take a lot of photos.

Otherwise, the S7 is pretty close to the S6; same overall size, the same combination of aluminum and glass, and a screen that’s absolutely bonkers. Every year we talk about how terrific Samsung displays are and the Galaxy S7’s is no different. It produces amazing color, brightness and clarity, and is only rivaled by devices in its own lineup. No surprise here—Samsung knows how to make a killer screen and the S7 carries on that illustrious legacy.

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Because Samsung has mostly stuck to last year’s design, it means the S7 is still a fingerprint magnet. There’s just no getting around that. I wouldn’t necessarily call that a design flaw but it’s worth mentioning; just be mindful of what color you get. Fingerprints aren’t as noticeable on the gold model, which is the one I used, but get your hands on the Onyx version and you’ll see your hand grease all over the device.

Meanwhile, the bottom-facing speaker is still just OK. Not horrible, but it sounds tinny at the highest volumes. It’s also pretty easy to accidentally to cover up because of its placement, which is something all phones with bottom-facing speakers suffer from. Jon felt the S7’s speaker might actually be a little worse than the S6’s, and when we asked Samsung if the water resistant sealing might have something to do with that, the company acknowledged there could be a slight degradation in sound quality.

One final thing: The Galaxy S7 doesn’t come with USB-C but there’s a reason for that. During a briefing with the company last week, a Samsung spokesman said it sees no obvious benefit for USB-C. And with Gear VR now such a big part of the company’s lineup, Samsung wanted to ensure its new devices were compatible with previous headsets. Will we ever see a Samsung device with USB-C? More than likely—but it didn’t see a reason to adopt the technology just yet.

A great software experience

The Galaxy S7 ships with Android 6.0.1 out of the box, and for the first time I didn’t feel the need to install a launcher over Samsung’s skin. TouchWiz (a name Samsung told us it’s trying to move away from) has improved dramatically over the past few years, and with the arrival of Android Marshmallow, it provides an enjoyable experience. All the fluff is gone, replaced by features and additions that actually improve stock Android.

(Most of the really cool features are exclusive to the Galaxy S7 Edge, so if that’s what you’re after, check out Todd’s review of that.)

From the home screen, for example, it’s really easy to change the grid size, with options for 4 x 4, 4 x 5 and 5 x 5. You can also apply themes really easily, which is something Samsung has been toying around with since last year. Having the ability to customize the experience is a key characteristic of Android and it’s nice to see Samsung embracing this fact. In case you’re wondering, I just kept it as is right out of the box, only changing the grid size to 4 x 5.

What’s impressive is how unobtrusive Samsung’s skin feels, which isn’t something we would have said a few years ago. I’m still not a huge fan of the cartoony look—stock Android looks much better—but there aren’t layers and layers of unnecessary features that you’ll never ever use. Instead, Samsung has made improvements where they make sense, some of which have been around for a while, such as quick settings inside the notification shade (which can be customized).

I’m a little annoyed by the fact that you can’t move the app drawer button from the bottom right corner, but if that’s the worst criticism I have of Samsung’s proprietary UI, things are going well. It’ll look and feel pretty familiar to those who used the S6 running Lollipop, but this year it feels even faster and more trimmed down.

I won’t dig through the software feature by feature but just know that it’s really good; I enjoyed being able to use two apps in split screen, and I appreciated Samsung giving me plenty of customization options. Meanwhile, double tapping the home button to launch the camera still feels like a small miracle. Seriously, it’s incredibly quick to launch in the S7, making it so, so easy to take a split-second photo. Good for dopey dogs that do crazy things.

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Perhaps the biggest addition to the software this year is a feature known as Always-On display. Rather than fully turning your display off, the S7 utilizes AMOLED technology to show information like calendar, clock and time. There’s even an option to show a background image for a little extra flare. Unfortunately, while the feature does what it’s designed to do, the implementation isn’t overly useful.

For whatever reason, only notifications from Samsung’s stock apps show up. That means if you rely on Slack or Hangouts to communicate, the always on display feature won’t tell you if you have a message. Notifications will still show up on your lock screen, but you’ll first have to bypass the always on option, which means it often acts as an annoying barrier. For that matter, you can’t interact with the always on screen; it’s just there.

Motorola’s Active Display, by comparison, is interactive, allowing users to jump directly into applications. You can read all about how Active Display works in our Moto X review but suffice to say Samsung’s implementation needs work. Even Google’s Ambient Display, which can be finicky, is a better solution. I suppose Samsung didn’t intend on the feature to be interacted with—after all, the lock screen is right there—but it just doesn’t feel finished quite yet.

On that note, I’m not really sure how big of a difference the always-on display makes to battery life. The very first day I got the device, I let it sit from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and saw a drop of 17 percent, which is pretty substantial. I don’t know how much of that can be attributed to the always on display, or maybe the phone working itself out on its first day of use, but it’s a big drop without a doubt.

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Unfortunately, I wouldn’t exactly call the S7’s battery life stellar. It’s just… fine; not good or bad but somewhere in the middle. Even with that larger 3,000mAh unit, I was looking at around 20 percent at the end of the day with about 4 hours of screen on time. That’s about what you’d expect from a modern smartphone. Jon said his usage improved dramatically after a few days of heavy use, so it could just be a case of my particular S7 getting its bearings and finding its stride. If I notice any huge differences after a few weeks I’ll be sure to update this post.

And for all you battery-toting fiends, I’m sad to say you still can’t replace the battery. Samsung can argue the design doesn’t allow for it but I’m sure if the company really wanted that feature to be available to users it would have found a way. (LG, by comparison, offers it with its G5; take that for what it’s worth.) The argument is that the S7 supports both wired and wireless fast charging features, so why accommodate a replaceable battery when 95 percent of users don’t take advantage of it?

And, anyway, buried in Marshmallow and within Samsung’s own tweaks, there are plenty of battery-saving features. Even if you’re hammering the S7 with games and video and calls and whatever else it is you do, you should get to the end of the day without issue. Put it this way: I never had anxiety about needing to find the closest outlet. And that was with the Always-On display feature (with background) going all day.

Now, I’m not really sure if there’s an appreciable difference without the Always-On feature turned off. Samsung isn’t even sure how big of a knock it has on overall battery. It really just depends on your particular usage. If you go Snapchat crazy and can’t stop watching YouTube videos, your phone, S7 or not, is going to die by the time you’re home for dinner.

The camera is great

Wow.

That’s all you need to know.

The Galaxy S6 (and subsequent Galaxy devices in 2015) already offered one of the best camera experiences on the market, and the Galaxy S7 further builds on last year’s achievements. Not only is the thing lightning quick but it takes excellent pictures, whether in broad daylight or inside a moody bar. Seriously, low-light performance is top notch.

The S7 comes equipped with a 12-megapixel sensor that Samsung says is capable of capturing 95 percent more light thanks to the wider f/1.7 aperture and 1.4um pixels; there’s also the added bonus of optical image stabilization. That sounds like a lot of blatant marketing fluff—I mean, 95 percent more light is probably a gross overestimation, right? In practice, the S7 is much more capable than previous Galaxy devices in low light situations. You can see the results right here in a comparison gallery.

In terms of outdoor, everyday performance, it’s tough to say whether overall quality is that drastic compared to the S6. When it comes to low light performance, however, there’s a clear and noticeable difference. Enough to warrant an upgrade? Probably not. But it bodes well for the future Samsung devices, which will likely include the same camera technology—or better.

The Galaxy S7’s autofocus is also insanely fast. The device sports dual pixel technology, which Samsung says provides quicker and more accurate autofocus. And, damn, that statement rung true again and again during our testing. Compared to my iPhone 6, the S7’s autofocus is miles better, particularly with video. There were a few instances when the device didn’t focus on exactly what I wanted, or took a moment to think about it before actually doing so. But, for the most part, it’s incredible how fast autofocus is.

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Samsung hasn’t confirmed what sensor is inside the S7 but teardowns have shown Sony may have created something custom—a Sony IMX260—for the Korean company. The IMX260 is said to be an Exmor R sensor, giving the device DSLR-like capabilities. I wouldn’t go so far as saying it can compete with a proper DSLR but the quality produced by the S7 is certainly impressive. And more than just quality, it handles highlights, exposure, processing and color very well. Some shots did turn out a little warm for my taste but overall it stood out as the best mobile shooter I’ve used.

Of course, the software Samsung offers with the experience is just as impressive as the images it produces. There are a helping of different modes, such as slow motion, panorama, food, hyperlapse and pro, ensuring you don’t run out of ways to capture life’s moments. But there’s also a Motion Photo mode, similar to Apple’s Live Photos, that’s new to the mix.

With Motion Photo turned on, the S7 will record a short video clip (about three seconds) of what happens before a picture is taken. It’s a charming addition and adds depth to images. I haven’t quite figured out if it’s possible to share these moving photos but I’m still glad to see the feature is available should I want to use it.

Note: The samples photos included in this post have been resized and watermarked. For the full resolution versions, follow this link.

Rating: Buy

Samsung’s Galaxy S7 is an impressive phone from top to bottom, offering a premium design, improved software and a wonderful camera.


Galaxy S7

Here’s the thing: If you were hoping for the Galaxy S7 to be this tectonic shift, you’ll be sorely disappointed. There are no big new technologies here designed to make the S7 stand out—no 3D touch like you see with the iPhone or a “Magic Slot” like we’re seeing from the LG G5. You’ll have to check out the S7 Edge if you want something more futuristic. With the S7, what consumers get is a highly polished device that fixes what people disliked about last year’s model. Samsung mostly focused on refinement and there’s nothing wrong with that.

So far as I can tell, the only device that bests the Galaxy S7 is the Galaxy S7 Edge. If you’re not into the curved edge craze, however, you should absolutely consider picking up the more “boring” of Samsung’s two new flagships. The S7 is fast, beautiful and it takes some of the best photos I’ve seen from a mobile camera.

But what about if you own a Galaxy S6? That’s where things get tricky. If you really value expandable storage and water resistance, then sure, knock yourself out. But for most people, I don’t think it warrants an upgrade from last year’s model. If you own anything before the S6, then the S7 absolutely deserves a spot in your pocket.

The S7 is a pretty safe bet for Samsung all things considered. It could have adopted USB-C but didn’t; it could have taken a modular approach but didn’t; it could have explored the possibilities of a pressure sensitive display but didn’t. Still, the Galaxy S7 has no real downside, offering one of the best, most cohesive all-around packages we’ve ever seen.

PROS

  • Excellent design
  • Terrific camera
  • Thoughtful software

CONS

  • What cons?

Disclaimer: Jon used the Galaxy S7 for 5 days before filming his review. Brandon used the device for 5 days before writing his review. Samsung sent both review units for Verizon.


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